Shebab, security overshadow Obama Kenya visit



US President Barack Obama will visit Kenya this weekend, his first visit as head of state to the country where his father was born. Questions of security will overshadow the trip as the Kenyan government tries to show the world that it has security under control… despite recent deadly attacks by the al-Shebab armed group.

Last weekend shoppers streamed into Nairobi’s Westgate Mall as it reopened with a lot of fanfare.

The mall had been closed since 2013, when an attack by al-Shebab fighters left 67 people dead in its shops and corridors. The reopening was symbolic for the Kenyan government, who are desperately trying to show the outside world that their war on al-Shebab is working.

But many analysts, including Abdullahi Boru Halake, say that Kenya has not actually become safer since Westgate.

“At the time, people said that Westgate was supposed to be like Kenya’s 11 September [the 2001 attacks on the US],” the Nairobi-based analyst told RFI. “We never wanted something like that to happen again so we were supposed to improve both our response and prevention methods. But none of that happened. To my mind, there hasn’t been any significant improvements to the security situation since then.”

Last April al-Shebab attacked Garissa College University, killing 147 people, most of them students.

Involvement in Somalia

Al-Shebab spokesperson Sheikh Ali Mohamud Rage declared that the Garissa bloodbath was waged in revenge for Kenya’s troop presence in Somalia. Kenya has played a large role in the African Union mission against al-Shebab in Somalia since 2011.

Recently the mission has succeeded in pushing back the group.

Mohamed Affey is an ambassador to Somalia from the regional Intergovernmental Authority on Development (Igad). He praised the Kenyan involvement in the mission exuberantly.

“Kenya is playing a fantastic role in Somalia, helping to liberate the country from al-Shebab,” he enthused. “Al-Shebab is thoroughly disorganised now and it’s weak as a result of Kenya.”

Affey also said he didn’t believe that Kenya’s involvement in Somalia put Kenyan people in danger.

“Even before Kenya was involved in Somalia, al-Shebab abducted tourists in Kenya,” he said. “You must eliminate al-Shebab in Somalia in order to have peace in the region and Kenya is working on that.”

Not everyone sees it that way. Halake, for instance, said that al-Shebab’s territorial losses have freed up resources and personnel, who can now focus on more guerrilla tactics like launching cross-border attacks.

Mission at home

As much as the Kenyan government would like to believe that the entire threat stems from Somalia, the fact that some of the perpetrators of the Garissa attacks were Kenyans has forced the country to face up to homegrown terror.

However, the government’s response has been widely criticised. There’s been heavy-handed policing, targeting of Muslims and Somalis and reports of extrajudicial killings.

“Let’s be honest, these over-the-top policing methods like torture, extrajudicial killings and targeting of certain communities are not effective and, in the long run, counter-productive,” Halake said. “They make people lose trust in the government and even prime people to join the ranks of al-Shebab.”

But one of the biggest issues is corruption.

It is endemic within the Kenyan security forces and it is turning into a real security risk, according to Stig Hansen, who wrote the book Al Shabaab in Somalia.

“Police corruption is a serious risk for both Kenya and Western states with diplomats and tourists in the country,” Hansen said. “It’s easy to buy yourself around the Kenyan police. Corruption has also contributed to the fact that the Kenyan-Somali border remains porous.”

Experts like Hansen say they hope that Obama will address these issues during his visit this weekend. Hansen says the US has some leverage as it provides both training and intelligence to the Kenyan government to help it to fight al-Shebab.

“I think the Westgate attack was not only a defeat for Kenya, it was really a defeat for the US and the UK as they trained the special forces that deployed,” he said. “I think the Americans are starting to learn the hard way that it is not enough to train and equip forces to make them elite. American-trained forces have collapsed time and again in front of Islamist threats.”

Washington counts on Kenya as a bulwark in the region. But, if Kenya is not able to get a handle on security, the US knows the entire region could be destabilised.

“It’s important that Obama can be critical of weaknesses in Kenyan management,” said Hansen. “They need a partner in the fight against al-Shebab that they can trust.”

While everyone will be thinking and talking about security during Obama’s visit, it is yet to be seen if he actually comments on it.

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